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The Wacky Adventures Of Frederic Chopin's Heart

The Wacky Adventures Of Frederic Chopin's Heart
Louis-Auguste Bisson

Today is Fredric Chopin's 201st birthday, although some sources claim he was actually born on February 22. Chopin's incredible nocturnes, pale complexion, consumption, and melancholy outlook have more than once prompted Rocks Off to christen him the Original Goth.

He remains a towering figure of piano composition, and speaking as an employee of RBC Sheet Music, his pieces still outsell any other composer by a wide margin. Well, except Beethoven's Fur Elise, which we could fix if corporate headquarters would let us hit people who bought it on the nose with a rolled up newspaper and say "No!"

C'est la vie.

Chopin died in Paris of tuberculosis at age 39, felled by a disease that also carried off several of his family members. Though his popularity was on the wane, he was still such an imposing social figure that people out-and-out lied about having been at his death bed in an annoying hipster way. It was a kind of "I watched Chopin die way before it was cool" sort of thing. In reality Chopin had just a priest, his sister, and a few close friends.

As we've mentioned before, Chopin's last words were "The earth is suffocating... Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won't be buried alive." Like many people of the 1800s, Chopin had a pathological fear of such a death.

It wasn't too unreasonable a phobia. In 1905 the English reformer William Tebb collected accounts of premature burial and found 219 cases of near-live burial, 149 actual live burials, ten cases of live dissection and two cases of awakening while being embalmed.

What we didn't mention before was the fact that Chopin wanted his heart to go on a final world tour back to his native Poland.

Heart-burial is nothing new, and reports of people doing it stretched back at least to Richard I. It's fairly simple. Many people consider the heart to be the home of the soul, or of their courage, or of their conscience, so they simply have people cut it out of their corpse and the heart is then buried separate from the body.

Our favorite case is that of Robert the Bruce, who wished to leave his body to Scotland and have his heart interred in Jerusalem. After his death in 1329, he entrusted this task to Sir James Douglas, who rode there with Bruce's ticker in a silver casket around his neck. Unfortunately, on the way to the Holy Land Douglas decided to join the siege of the Castle of Teba in the kingdom of Granada.

During battle, Douglas saw his friend Sir William St. Clair surrounded by enemy forces. Outnumbered 20 to 1, Douglas hurled Bruce's heart ahead of his horse and shouted, "Now pass thou onward as thou wert wont, and Douglas will follow thee or die!" He and everyone involved in the charge were killed, and the whole incident was chalked up to a condition Douglas had, known as "being really Scottish."

Amazingly, the heart of Bruce was recovered and eventually interred in Melrose Abbey back in Scotland.

By contrast, Chopin simply wanted his heart to be buried back in his native Poland. Though Chopin worked in Paris most of his life, and rarely left the city, he was fiercely sentimental for his homeland, but never returned there after an attempted rebellion against Tsarist rule in 1830 that was known as the November Uprising.

Heart-burial was particularly common with Poles, like Chopin who were abroad during the Great Emigration. Chopin's sister kept the heart around for grins and Skittles for a few years, but eventually she stuffed the heart in a jar filled with cognac and smuggled it to Warsaw like a 19th-century Han Solo. She managed to get it laid to rest in the Holy Cross church in Warsaw in 1882. It has laid there almost undisturbed since.

Almost?

 

Frederic Chopin's grave in Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery
Frederic Chopin's grave in Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery

Popular legend has it that the heart was removed for safe-keeping during World War II. Good thing, too as the church suffered a lot of damage by German troops in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. And who is responsible for saving the beloved national treasure from the stinking Nazis? That would be the stinking Nazis.

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was responsible for razing Warsaw to the ground, as well as killing roughly 200,000 civilians (65,000 in mass executions alone). Still, he was a music fan and saved the heart. He later returned the heart to the Polish people as part of a propaganda ceremony, and an archbishop sneaked it out of the ceremony under his robes to keep it safe until fighting was ended.

As for the rest of Chopin, he was laid to rest in much more serene circumstances back in France. Nearly 3,000 people attended his funeral, and the organist was none other than our favorite ghost composer, Franz Liszt.

That's not to say that there were no hitches in the ceremony. Chopin asked that Mozart's Requiem be performed at his funeral. The problem was that the piece has major parts for female singers, and the Church of the Madeleine where the ceremony was held did not allow female singers. The obvious solution was to hide the girls behind a black curtain. Yes, really.

Chopin is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Same as Jim Morrison.


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